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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Faith in the Face of Empire: Seven Marks of the Empire

In the previous chapters of Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes, author Mitri Raheb has said that the normal state of affairs in Palestine is occupation.  Through its long history it has been ruled by many various empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Ayyubid, Tartar, Mamluk, Mongol, Ottoman, England, Israel (Raheb, 4)…[i] And even though each successive empire is singularly different, they all develop and utilize a number of similar tactics, policies and theologies (Raheb, 55).  They’re all cut from the same imperial cloth.

In chapter 5 “The Empire” Raheb focuses on Israel as “the expression of empire in Palestine,” - not because Israel is the only empire ever, or the worst expression of imperialism ever.  It is not.  But it is the current expression of the imperial ideology in Palestine.  He acknowledges that this will be shocking to some because of the way our theologies have been shaped in order to support Empires - of which Israel is a singular example (Raheb, 55)

Raheb enumerates 7  imperial patterns that can be observed in Israel today.

1 – Control of Movement Empires are all about control.  They rule by control.  They control by building up an army and by building watch towers, fortresses, walls and gates.  Israel control’s the movement of the Palestinian people with security checkpoints and rarely granted official permissions.  “Gaza is 360 square miles surrounded by walls and seas, making it the biggest open-air prison in the world to date (Raheb, 56).”  The Palestinian village of al-Walaja near Jerusalem is about to be completely encircled by the massive concrete wall that increasingly cuts off the Palestinian people.  When this section of the wall is completed there will be a single check point in and out. The people of the al-Walaja village will be cut off from their farms and fields and olive tree groves.  

2- Control of Resources – Water is the big one here.  And Israel controls the water.  Most of the water in the region comes from the Jordan River.  But even in places where water can be found in underground aquifers, that water is diverted to Jewish settlements and Palestinians are not permitted to dig for water (Raheb, 58).  And as this year has been an especially dry year in Israel, the situation is nearing crisis levels. 
While in Israel we saw a desalinization plant being built along the Mediterranean coastline. This will provide another much needed source of water to the area.  A desalinization plant has been proposed for Gaza as well, but this only heightens the concern for the Palestinian people.  What happens if they are cut off from the aquifers that supply natural fresh water, and the desalinization plant is damaged by Israeli bombings? 

3 – Settlements - Empires have always built new colonies, outposts, cities, and settlements as a way to control occupied lands.  These settlements provide an administrative base for the empire and crowd out troublesome natives.  “While native villages and cities grow and evolve naturally over time and at a ‘normal’ speed, settlements are established strategically and deliberately to control (Raheb 59).”

Despite a repeated international condemnation, including a UN General Assembly resolution and a ruling by the International Court of Justice, the population of these illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands, which currently number 121, has grown by an average of 5% annually since 2001. That compares to an average growth of just 1.8% for the population of Israel proper.  These settlements and outposts are inhabited by a population of some 462,000 Israeli settlers.

4 – State Terrorism – We usually reserve this word for the “bad guys” - those fighting against the empire.  Terrorists crash planes and blow themselves up.  But Empires effectively use terror to control and suppress native peoples (Raheb, 60). 

Providentially, perhaps, I am reading this chapter on the anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre

This is not to say that there are not Palestinian terrorist groups.  There certainly are.  But the state of Israel – like every other empire before it – effectively uses violence and terror against the people it controls.

5 – Exile – When Assyria conquered Israel the tribes of the north were scattered.  When Babylon conquered Judah, the people were taken into captivity.  When European settlers pressed into North America, the native populations were forced from the land and eventually into “Reservations.”  This is how empires work. This is what they do.  Israel is no different. When the state of Israel was established in 1948 some 750,000 Palestinians lost their homes, land, and possessions.  Today the number of refugee Palestinians is approximately 5 Million (Raheb, 61 – 62).

6 – The Temple – In order to demonstrate their superiority, empires have always defaced and defamed the gods of conquered nations.  Temples are burned.  Shrines are looted.  When Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem his forces looted the temple and carried the sacred objects off to Babylon.  Christian armies turned Muslim mosques into Christian cathedrals by replacing the crescent moon with a cross. Muslim forces converted the Hagia Sophia in Turkey into a mosque.  Today, Israel claims complete control over the city of Jerusalem – sacred to Palestinians of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.  (Yes.  There are Palestinian Jews – 17% of those in the Palestinian West Bank. )

7 – Imperial Theology – It isn’t enough to have military, political, and economic power, though.  Empires also have to provide some sort of moral validation for their existence.  From the “Divine Right of Kings” to “Manifest Destiny” and Apartheid – theology has always been utilized by empires to justify themselves.  “From day one, theology has provided the narrative glue that keeps Israeli society together (Raheb, 66).”  [ii]

Previous Chapters:
Chapter 1 – Longview of History 
Chapter 4 – Omphaloskepsis 

[i] Raheb, Mitri, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2014.
[ii] Perhaps Raheb is cribbing a phrase from John Dominick Crossan who writes about imperial theology as the “ideological glue” that held Roman civilization together. 

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